Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Korean Cuisine Aiming At World's Top Five. China is watching.

It's only a matter of time : Korean cuisine will be recognized as one of the World's favorite. Tasting is believing !

The question is : will this ineluctable success benefit Korea itself, or a rival ? It depends on how smartly and swiftly the Government acts.





1) At last, the Korean Government means business... but it's not the only one !

Yesterday, a "Korean Cuisine To The World 2009" meeting in Seoul set interesting guidelines :

  • ambitious targets : Korea aims at the Top 5 of World Cuisines, the number of Korean restaurants overseas must jump from 10,000 to 40,000 between 2007 and 2017, and food export must more than double within the next 3 years
  • significant means to reach the targets : a financial boost (KRW 50 bn by 2013 - that's around USD 38 M), a political boost (Food Service Industry Promotion Bill), international partnerships (ie with such international cuisine schools as Le Cordon Bleu)...
There was already some buzz about this project last year, but yesterday's event generated even more articles in the press. In Korea, but also in China, via the Xinhua News Agency*.

Just a reminder : Beijing monitors very closely the way Korean culture is spreading. Hardly a surprise when you consider the way the Middle Kingdom is claiming key Korean heritages (ie revisionism about Goguryeo). And this is potentially big business, so I wouldn't be surprised if the first global franchise of Korean restaurants came from China... filling the gap globally the way Japanese did locally in Paris (ie the Japanese family behind "Korean Barbecue" restaurants).

By the way : Japan is also very much aware of the competitive threat, since a person in charge of promoting Japanese food was invited yesterday.

I'm not sure the Korean Government is fully aware of all the consequences of this show:

  • there is no such thing as a top 5 - all cuisines are equally the best ones!
  • this doesn't have to be a war, and I hope Korea will not play the traditional, counterproductive, nationalistic, us-vs-them tune... but announcing a presence in the Top 5 can be perceived as a declaration of war : as a collateral damage, it means that another will have to step down
  • before Korean cuisine gets the attention it deserves, its promoters surely got the attention from their direct competitors
  • as a consequence, Korea cannot afford to waste time and must act swiftly... and responsibly. Typically, Korea cannot let direct competitors attend every strategic meeting.

2) If Korea can be confident in its strenghts, it must also get ready for serious competition !

I hate to mention marketing about food, but let's face it : a big effort has to be done at the conceptual level before going operational. Starting with positioning.

Surveys and benchmarks are probably being waged in major markets, but just in case, here's my pitch.

The World has already clear images of other major cuisines... or rather caricatures and clichés : spicy Thai for instance, or healthy and natural Japanese. Except maybe for the ultradiverse Chinese cuisine and the sometimes too cryptic French menus, most people generally have only a few dishes in mind : sometimes close to the original stuff (ie Tom Yum, sushi), sometimes distant parents (ie a tragedy for Italian cuisine - totally eclipsed by American caricatures of pizza and pastas !).

People with some knowledge of Korean food will probably mention gimchi, bulgogi, maybe bibimpap and doenjang jjigae. And that's a rather good start. There is overall a reputation of rather hot and spicy stuff, but not a clear and positive positioning shared by the masses.

If I were to select 3 words to qualify Korean cuisine's major assets, I'd pick taste, diversity, and intensity.

Korean cuisine is more diverse than what people think, but the same can be said about almost every cuisine across the world. Yet, every promotion campaign keeps hammering this evidence because it is a most vital message to get through : no one should feel excluded, think "this not for me".

You want to try Korean food with friends, and it could even become a sales pitch for young urban targets : unlike with most rivals, there's always a solution at hand for a meat lover, a vegetarian, a fine palate, or say a fire eater. If you don't know Korean food, no problem, most restaurants propose the 4-5 stars that will satisfy all types of gourmets. Just give it a try... and spread the word around !

To me, the stimulating taste / intensity combo is clearly distinctive of Korean cuisine. Eating is living, eating with friends is a lively experience, Korean food is alive, and can be very much kicking thank you.


There are some dull dishes like everywhere else but essentially, it's always been about making the most of scarce ressources, about mixing and giving ingredients a character. Not just selecting the best ingredients, but composing powerful and often rich notes. There are fantastic regional specialities in China, but in Korea, even star dishes keep their intensity, and they simply cannot go with a dilluting MSG sauce. Here, feeding someone is making a statement, and no Korean restaurant can survive over one month if it doesn't taste good.

This major constraint is a clear opportunity, particularily when you see bland pseudo-Japanese sushi bars popping out everywhere across the globe, paradoxically weakening the image of Japanese cuisine, almost commoditizing it.

Among the Top 5, I've already spotted Japan as the weak link in these pages (See
Seoul Village - The Gaon 2004) :

"The reputation of Korean cuisine should normally surpass that of Japanese cuisine within 15 to 20 years. Koreans clearly don't play in the same league and the Japanese know it (they adore Korean food). They can fool Westerners with their sense of presentation but as soon as the public tastes actual Korean cuisine, the game is over - for good.
Unfortunately, up to now no Korean restaurant could really visually match their
cuisine, but for some prestigious places embalmed in the cult of Tradition (...)"
(NB : then Gaon came and - gasp - passed away)

Don't get me wrong : I really enjoy Japanese cuisine. But good sushi and sashimi are rare and expensive, and very few restaurants overseas offer great Japanese food beyond the basic hits.

Note that with Korean basic hits, you can please a much wider and much more diverse audience. Bonus : for a very competitive ticket. My advice ? Never underestimate doenjang jjigae. Not the most glamorous dish, but a unique, fantastic and complex taste that surprises many westerners. The best pedagogy will come from those who are already in the know.

Korea is obviously benchmarking Thailand and Japan : both countries launched massive campaigns and multiplied restaurants overseas. OK for some pedagogy and standardization of names (at last!), but if the result is 40,000 places as terrible as the standard sushi joints created over the past few years, forget it : the main result was a worldwide eradication of sea fishes, and the long term annihilation of Japanese cuisine identity.

Consider Paris : "Japanese" restaurants (mostly held by Chinese citizens) have become a cheap commodity, but they all propose the same menu, the same decor, the same limited experience. This fad just can't last. Chinese take outs are legion, but they offer a much richer variety. On the other hand, Japan provides some precious support : food quality control, pedagogic leaflets, waiters with a clean shirt and a smile... That makes a difference at the customer level : you won't meet an outdated fish there, but you'll often bump into sour pork at a "traiteur Chinois".

Developping a labeling system for all kinds of Korean restaurants, pooling some resources in major cities, developping some local farming support, making sure all can provide fresh ketnip (wild sesame leaves)...

Promoting Korean cuisine shouldn't be about imposing a new ruler but about heralding diversity and the return of tasty food. Yes you will eat well and for a reasonable price, but you will keep coming back because you enjoy it.


3) But first of all, Korea must think and act as a member of the Top 5
If you read the press, Koreans lie at the feet of the Himalaya, aiming at a place among the top summits.

That's utterly wrong : Korea is already there. The thing is that people don't know it. And the main hurdle ? Even Koreans don't seem to realise it.

It's only a matter of time, remember ?

But as it decides to claim its own heritage, and the place it deserves, Korea cannot afford to fight against itself.

The Korean Government plans to focus on major international cities, and that makes perfect sense. But only Anglo-Saxon hubs are mentioned, and it seems to me that if you want to take over Japan, China, Italy or France, you must at least strengthen your positions there. Why nurture a complex when your food is so great ? If not greater : come on, I am a French citizen and I do love French food, but I must confess that the vast majority of supposedly very good French restaurants cannot compete with a good Korean restaurant ! Every week, I enjoy moving culinary experiences in the least probable places, which seldom happens to me in Paris. And I can tell it by visitors to my websites : people in France or Italy WANT more Korean restaurants.

Furthermore, and for the zillionth time, how can you promote Korean cuisine overseas when you don't even defend it enough at home ? It saddens me to see high end Korean restaurants that are far better and cheaper than their rivals close simply because Korean customers think it's natural to pay more for Western food (see "Annus Horribilis"). Every 5 star hotel owned by a Korean chaebol should keep a top Korean restaurant : that's a key element of the international image, and subsidies could even be part of the global budget.

Meanwhile, of course, Korea should keep going on its already strong points in marketing, such as information for foreigners (websites, brochures, information centers) : special mention to "Best Korean Restaurants in Seoul" (edited yearly by Seoul City) and its mouthwatering pictures, menu samples with prices, and comments in Korean, English, Chinese, as well as in Japanese (Incheon is doing the same, with all kinds of restaurants).

I read that CJ Foodville took part in yesterday's convention and that's good news. This great company is definitely the ideal champion to develop international franchises both for the masses and for thicker wallets : they have the money, the structure, and even a Hankook Academy to leverage on. Besides, Cafe Sobahn is a promising concept : sound food, revisiting a classic (bibimpap) with a touch of innovation, a modern and not too hype atmosphere.

But CJ will probably have to develop more brands to complete an international Korean cuisine platform. Unfortunately, even for such a big player, it's virtually impossible to build a truly generalist Korean chain in Korea, by essence the most competitive market : every concept sees three me-too products pop up the following week, and margins are so low that only "foreign" food franchises can sell at not too low a price. CJ impressive roster sums it all : VIPS (US style steak and salad family restaurant), Cold Stone (US style ice creams), The Place (American-Italian), Tous les Jours ("French" bakery), China Factory (!!!), and the excellent After The Rain (Thai restaurants in Jeongno-gu and Gangnam)... I guess Seafood Ocean is also a viable business model because of their purchasing power on premium food but there again, this is not "typical Korean".

Where to start, then ? To my great disapointment, a major opportunity was missed at Incheon International Airport, the ultimate entry point for foreigners, and the ideal platform to test a global concept. The result ? Welly's, a terrible brand and a non-concept if I ever saw one. It shouldn't be difficult to do better.

Do aim high but please, don't start too low !

Korea must succeed because Korean cuisine and the Korean people deserve it.


* for instance "
Localization key to globalizing Korean food" (The Korea Herald - 20090408), "Korean Cuisine Seeks To Globalize" (Joongang Daily - 20090408), "S Korean gov't to invest $38.1 mln in food industry" (ChinaView - 20090407)...



9 comments:

  1. Worlds Top Five.... I highly doubt it. Chinese and Indian cuisine are so diverse in their ingredients and cooking styles and historically have had an incredibly large influence on their surrounding areas that they have always been in the top 5. IMO, they are top 2. But, Korean cuisine lacks the diversity of cooking style and ingredients of Chinese or Indian cuisine. Due to the cold climate and small amount of land, Korean cuisine lacked a large amount of ingredients and vegetables were scarce and had to be pickled(kimchi) to preserve it over the harsh winters. moreover, Korean cuisine lacks the influence that Chinese and Indian have. Indian cuisines influence can be seen throughout South and Southeast Asia in the use of curries and other Indian ingredients while Chinese cuisines influence can be seen in East Asia as well as Southeast Asia. In Korea alone, the Chinese cuisine influence is massive. the use of chopsticks, the drinking of tea, the eating of tofu,rice, mandu(chinese dumplings), the fact that the most standard of Kimchi is made from Chinese cabbage, and the various bean pastes used in Korean cuisine all have Chinese equivalents. Moreover, favorite Korean dishes such as Jajangmyeon are Chinese in origin. With all that in mind, I just dont see it happening. Then again, Japanese cuisine historically was not very good either. The reputation it has now wasnt gained until modern times so it may be possible for Korean cuisine to surpass Japanese on the worlds top 5 list but it will definitely not surpass Chinese or Indian. As of right now though, I dont see Korean surpassing Japanese cuisine. It took a while for modern Japanese cuisine to become what it is and as it is now, Japanese cuisine is also more diverse than Korean cuisine. Korean food in general is just too similar in the way it is cooked, the spices used, and the taste. Its just not something with enough diversity to reach top 5. Unlike Chinese,Indian, and even Japanese

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Hardly a surprise when you consider the way the Middle Kingdom is claiming key Korean heritages (ie revisionism about Goguryeo)."

    Yeah, just like how Korea claims the Japanese islands of Kagashima are Korean, or how Koreans try to claim Confucius, Chinese characters, and the Dragonboat Festival is Korean. They are indeed hypocrites

    ReplyDelete
  3. We fully agree for Indian and Chinese cuisines and their influences. And of course, the limited influence of Korean cuisine has something to do with the nickname "Hermit Kingdom".

    But I don't follow you on this incredible sentence : "Yeah, just like how Korea claims the Japanese islands of Kagashima are Korean, or how Koreans try to claim Confucius, Chinese characters, and the Dragonboat Festival is Korean."

    First, all Koreans know perfectly what their own culture owes to China, India and Japan, including for food. Korean respect their cultural heritage and never tried to revision their own history nor that of their neighbors.

    Second, I never heard of Korea claiming any part of Japan (and never heard of Kagashima for that matter). I wish I could tell the same about Japan and Dokdo...

    Pretending that Koreans believe that Confucius or Chinese characters are not Chinese is not only totally wrong but insulting for Korean education. Koreans would never allow one of their own citizens to say such blasphemy and would send him straight to the nearest asylum.

    I was so flabbergasted to read such a laughable assumption that I had to do some research. I was not surprised to see that the false accusation that Koreans believed Confucius was Korean came from some Japan TV program.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Korean respect their cultural heritage and never tried to revision their own history nor that of their neighbors."

    Oh really?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WB2RcPTLGDY&feature=related

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the link. This program is a total shame and the owner of this cable channel should apologise. Not only to China but to the Korean people.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hello,

    Just to say that the best part about your article is about the way Koreans perceive foreign food. I still don't get why they pay so much for tasteless pizza (or pasta...) that you share among so many and that are just so expensive compared to some real Korean restaurants for 5000 wons.. such a shame..

    It is also funny to compare this to France... We have to pay more to get real French food rather than foreign food.. So strange..

    Anyway, that would be a great thing if they managed to open more Korean restaurants in France, mainly outside of Paris. Especially because every time I cook some Korean food for my friends, they all like it so much (the only issue being that they all call it Chinese food ㅠㅠ ).

    Good night to all of you guys!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Archon
    I bet u r Chinese. And u better watch what u r saying. There is no island named kagashima LOL. u maybe want to say takeshima that's how Japanese call Korean Island Dokdo. If u do not know about this issue. U better shut. Korea owns this island through out history. And in the imperial age, Japan takes over this island Korea in order to match up Russian navy at the time. And Korea get back this island after the WW2. And I think it is better for u to talk about the conflicts between China and Japan before this issue. Such as Senkaku island(尖閣列島) or Diao-yu Dao(釣魚島諸島)And About Goguryeo issue! Chinese are trying to steal this part of Korean history now. and now u r saying Koreans are stealing Chinese history? So does it mean chinese have right to steal neighbor histories? So far Chinese have steal Mongolian, tibetan, and Wighurian history. And I know many Chinese believe Genghis Khan is Chinese. Which makes me laugh. And now they r tageting Korean and Vietnamese hitory also. So does Chinese have right to steal? To tell u the truth major numbers of Koreans do believe Confucious was from China And that's how I've educated in public schools in Korea. So u better watch what u r saying. And about food issue, U think Koreans have less diversity of cooking styles? u've got totally wrong! Korea also have many different styles of cooking. Are r u major in Korean foods or sthing? How can u states that so clear without knowing Korean foods? Korea also has lots of region foods and seasonal foods! and traditional palace foods also. Korea has 4 seasons. Therefore, Korean foods were develops through each seasons. Just because the nation is small doesn't mean they have small numbers of foods. Look at France or Turkey. They have variety of foods even though their nation is not so big. Stop underestimate Korea. And u made all of Korean people hypocrites by ur ugly words. Which is not right for Chinese man to say! As far as I know Chinese r blaming Japanese imperial army for their brutalness towards Chinese people during Japanese occupation in China. And look at Chinese gov. They do the samething towards Tibetans and Wighurians. Even Mongolians in the past. Now who is more like hypocrites?

    ReplyDelete
  8. To Archon
    I bet u r Chinese. And u better watch what u r saying. There is no island named kagashima LOL. u maybe want to say takeshima that's how Japanese call Korean Island Dokdo. If u do not know about this issue. U better shut. Korea owns this island through out history. And in the imperial age, Japan takes over this island Korea in order to match up Russian navy at the time. And Korea get back this island after the WW2. And I think it is better for u to talk about the conflicts between China and Japan before this issue. Such as Senkaku island(尖閣列島) or Diao-yu Dao(釣魚島諸島)And About Goguryeo issue! Chinese are trying to steal this part of Korean history now. and now u r saying Koreans are stealing Chinese history? So does it mean chinese have right to steal neighbor histories? So far Chinese have steal Mongolian, tibetan, and Wighurian history. And I know many Chinese believe Genghis Khan is Chinese. Which makes me laugh. And now they r tageting Korean and Vietnamese hitory also. So does Chinese have right to steal? To tell u the truth major numbers of Koreans do believe Confucious was from China And that's how I've educated in public schools in Korea. So u better watch what u r saying. And about food issue, U think Koreans have less diversity of cooking styles? u've got totally wrong! Korea also have many different styles of cooking. Are r u major in Korean foods or sthing? How can u states that so clear without knowing Korean foods? Korea also has lots of region foods and seasonal foods! and traditional palace foods also. Korea has 4 seasons. Therefore, Korean foods were develops through each seasons. Just because the nation is small doesn't mean they have small numbers of foods. Look at France or Turkey. They have variety of foods even though their nation is not so big. Stop underestimate Korea. And u made all of Korean people hypocrites by ur ugly words. Which is not right for Chinese man to say! As far as I know Chinese r blaming Japanese imperial army for their brutalness towards Chinese people during Japanese occupation in China. And look at Chinese gov. They do the samething towards Tibetans and Wighurians. Even Mongolians in the past. Now who is more like hypocrites?

    ReplyDelete
  9. ok - now let's enjoy food from all over the world without fighting too much.

    there are other posts to talk about politics in this village.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for your comments and remarks. Also for your patience (comments are moderated and are not published right away - only way to curb the spam, sorry). S.

books, movies, music